Biggest Sleepers in Power 5 College Football Conferences in 2018

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2018

Biggest Sleepers in Power 5 College Football Conferences in 2018

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    National signing day has come and gone, coaching vacancies are filled and the clock is ticking down toward spring practice. Hope abounds in college football programs across the country, and some under-the-radar sleepers are poised to exceed expectations.

    Talented teams that underachieved a year ago are set to have new life breathed into them by different coaches. That's the case at Arizona, Florida State, Nebraska and Texas A&M, and there are already high expectations in all those places.

    The team new Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher left for Willie Taggart and the one he inherited from Kevin Sumlin look built to surprise in 2018. Ousted Wildcats coach Rich Rodriguez left Sumlin a talented defensive backfield and an all-world talent in Khalil Tate at quarterback.

    Other Power Five programs pundits may not be talking about include Missouri and Purdue.

    The Tigers are excited about returning stud senior quarterback Drew Lock. The Boilermakers overachieved a season ago and could be even better in head coach Jeff Brohm's second year.

    Some teams' sleeper seasons would mean taking a step forward from last year; for others, it could mean competing for conference titles.

    Taking into consideration programs' returning players, star power, the injection of new lifeblood into talented rosters and a potential change of pace from a previous regime, let's take a look at Power Five teams that will overachieve in '18.

Arizona Wildcats

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2017 Highlights

    Last year was inconsistent for the Wildcats, but there were some glimmers of potential to come. Though they wound up 7-6 with a frustrating 38-35 loss to Purdue in the Foster Farms Bowl to cap a three-game slide to end the year, there were some high points.

    Their best game was a stunning 58-37 upset of Washington State on Oct. 28 when Tate accounted for 421 yards and three touchdowns. The defense had four interceptions in the rout.

    Arizona also beat UCLA, 47-30, and California, 45-44.

             

    2018 Expectations

    If Tate meshes with Sumlin, it could be a perfect marriage for the Wildcats, who appear built to win now. Running back J.J. Taylor had more than 800 rushing yards last year, and he's back, along with big-play receiver Shun Brown. Those guys headline an offense that has seven starters set to return.

    On the other side of the ball, there's youth and excitement, especially in the secondary. The Wildcats have nine players back who started a game on that side of the ball, and since USC has to replace Sam Darnold and a lot of other pieces, watch out for Arizona.

    The out-of-conference schedule isn't easy with games against BYU and Houston, but the Wildcats have a lot of firepower.

           

    Why They're Dangerous

    The short answer here is Tate. He's a next-level talent with top-end speed and a rocket arm. He's still somewhat raw, but there are few playmakers in college football who can take over a game like him.

    Next to Stanford running back Bryce Love, Tate is the top returning player in the Pac-12. With all those weapons around him, Tate could thrive.

    Sumlin has a lot of quality pieces. If he can put everything together, this could be a special season in Arizona, and the Wildcats could play for the conference title.

Florida State Seminoles

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    2017 Highlights

    Uhhhhh, there weren't many.

    The first half of the season opener against Alabama was competitive, but after quarterback Deondre Francois went down with a season-ending injury, things spiraled out of control in a 24-7 loss. That was a microcosm of the season to come.

    A 26-19 win over Wake Forest aged well, and it's always nice to beat Florida, no matter how bad the Gators were. But a 7-6 record was far from what Jimbo Fisher and Co. expected in a year where a lot of experts picked the Seminoles to challenge Clemson in the ACC.

             

    2018 Expectations

    The Bleacher Report panel projected FSU at 17th in its way-too-early Top 25 following national signing day, but the Seminoles could be even better—and they probably should be.

    Francois is back; not only is he a game-changing talent under center, he's also a team leader the Seminoles desperately missed a season ago. Stud sophomore Cam Akers returns in the offensive backfield along with veteran Jacques Patrick.

    The way FSU recruits, the defense is loaded with talent. Though the void left by Fisher was big in living rooms, Willie Taggart picked up and finished with another solid class. The 'Noles could challenge Clemson.

            

    Why They're Dangerous

    How Francois returns from last year's injury is a major X-factor, but that isn't the only one. Taggart returns to the Sunshine State, and he's a hard-nosed head coach who may not jell with his players right away.

    When he implements his system, he has tons of talent with which to work. Taggart is known for developing running backs, and he's got perhaps the best young one in the nation in Akers. That offense has a lot of exciting players, and the defense wasn't awful a season ago.

    This looks like an ideal rebound year in Tallahassee.

Missouri Tigers

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    2017 Highlights

    It looked like second-year coach Barry Odom could be headed for unemployment when the Tigers started 1-5. But they turned it on when they opened up the offense behind star quarterback Drew Lock, winning six straight, including victories over Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas.

    Those programs had awful seasons that led to coaches' getting fired, but Mizzou needed to take care of business and did. A 33-16 loss to Texas in the Texas Bowl put a dismal stamp on the season, but a 7-6 record after that start wasn't bad.

           

    2018 Expectations

    It could be a very surprising season for the Tigers, as Lock elected to return to Columbia for his senior season despite being a sure draft pick. In a great year for signal-callers in the NFL draft, Lock decided to enjoy the college experience one more year.

    It's unclear how that decision will play out with former offensive coordinator Josh Heupel off to Orlando to take over at Central Florida for Scott Frost. Odom hired former Tennessee head coach and Dallas Cowboys wide receivers coach Derek Dooley to be the offensive coordinator and coach quarterbacks.

    Will Lock mesh with Dooley? If he does, an offense that returns 10 starters could do big things; Georgia is losing a ton of talent, and the rest of the SEC East is beatable.

               

    Why They're Dangerous

    Lock threw for nearly 4,000 yards and an SEC-record 44 touchdowns a season ago, and what he's able to do for an encore has everybody intrigued.

    Running backs Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree II are also back along with breakout wide receiver Emanuel Hall, slot receivers Johnathon Johnson and Richaud Floyd, and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, who led college football in receiving scores by a freshman with 11.

    Throw in all five returning offensive linemen, and things could get interesting quickly. There are impact defenders coming back too, led by stud defensive lineman Terry Beckner Jr.

Nebraska Cornhuskers

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    2017 Highlights

    None, really. The only glimmer of hope for the downtrodden Huskers under former coach Mike Riley was a 25-24 win over Purdue. The defense was 116th nationally in points allowed per game, and the offense was awful too.

    One good thing was the Tanner Lee-Stanley Morgan Jr. connection. Morgan finished with 61 catches for 986 yards and 10 touchdowns. It's puzzling that Lee is forgoing his final year in Lincoln for the NFL draft, but he didn't fit Scott Frost's system anyway.

             

    2018 Expectations

    They shouldn't be that high because Nebraska finished 4-8 a season ago, but this isn't a team full of awful players. Does it have the type of personnel Frost can turn into an awesome team right away? No. But it can win.

    The Huskers are situated in the Big Ten West, after all. Though Wisconsin is a powerhouse that owns the division, there aren't any other guarantees. That means the division is set up for Frost, who turned a winless Golden Knights program into a bowl team his first year and an undefeated squad in his second.

    Freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez, who Frost flipped from Tennessee, is a great start. Morgan is back, and there are guys he can turn into playmakers.

              

    Why They're Dangerous

    Frost gives the Huskers immediate credibility.

    He turned lightly regarded Hawaii product McKenzie Milton into one of the nation's best players in two years. Auburn had no answer for the UCF quarterback in the Peach Bowl. Who's to say he won't do the same for Martinez (or whoever else plays quarterback)?

    Star linebacker Dedrick Young, who had 80 tackles last season, and senior safeties Aaron Williams and Antonio Reed are back. While the Huskers go to Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio State and Iowa, which is brutal, they should compete in an otherwise manageable schedule.

Purdue Boilermakers

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    2017 Highlights

    Under first-year coach Jeff Brohm, the Boilermakers were the biggest surprise in the Big Ten and perhaps the nation. They wound up 7-6 with a resounding win over Khalil Tate and Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl.

    A 24-15 win over Iowa was strong, and the 35-3 domination of Mizzou aged well. Thankfully, Brohm's Boilermakers caught the Tigers before they realized they should air it out all the time, or that game would have been a shootout.

    Purdue didn't stun anybody it shouldn't have, but it was competitive.

               

    2018 Expectations

    Both quarterbacks (Elijah Sindelar and David Blough) return, and that's big news for the Boilermakers, who used them both a season ago, keeping teams off-stride. They complemented each other in an injury-plagued season too.

    Both of them are on the mend following offseason surgeries, and Sindelar will miss spring drills. But both will be ready when the season starts. A big chunk of the offense returns, including much of the offensive line.

    The graduation of five members of the front seven on defense will hurt, but Brohm is recruiting well to West Lafayette and can fill the holes. Though the Boilermakers have a tough schedule, they could improve their record.

              

    Why They're Dangerous

    The kind of numbers Brohm's offense traditionally puts up should be scary in the plodding Big Ten. He has the capability to win the division, though unseating Wisconsin will be tough.

    Brohm decided to stay at Purdue despite overtures from Tennessee and is building things for the long haul in West Lafayette. With all those offensive weapons and the way he's upgrading the talent all over the field, his 2018 team could be even better than last year's surprise.

    Northwestern, Mizzou, Nebraska, Ohio State, Michigan State, Iowa and Wisconsin form a minefield the Boilermakers must navigate with a couple of wins at least. If that happens, a nine-win season could be attainable.

Texas Longhorns

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    2017 Highlights

    In Tom Herman's first year in Austin, it was a season of "almosts" for the Longhorns. They were close in losses to USC, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas Tech. But they also had resounding wins over Iowa State, Kansas State, West Virginia and Missouri.

    The bowl win over Mizzou was particularly satisfying because of the high level at which the Tigers were playing.

    Defensively, the 'Horns improved as the year progressed under coordinator Todd Orlando, and the offense showed glimmers.

             

    2018 Expectations

    The Longhorns desperately need either Sam Ehlinger or Shane Buechele to assert himself as the leader at quarterback. That's the main thing holding the team back. If one of them does, they'll be a dark-horse Big 12 contender.

    Ehlinger replaced Buechele in the bowl game and was excellent, completing 11 of his 15 passes in the win.

    Perhaps the most exciting thing about the upcoming season is that Texas signed arguably the best secondary recruiting class ever. Safeties Caden Sterns, BJ Foster and DeMarvion Overshown along with cornerbacks Jalen Green, D'shawn Jamison and Anthony Cook make that an unfair class.

    If those guys step in and shore up a Texas defensive backfield, the Longhorns will be nasty on that side of the ball.

             

    Why They're Dangerous

    Texas is about to start looking like Texas again from a talent perspective. The 'Horns signed the nation's third-ranked class according to the 247Sports composite ratings, and there are playmakers on both sides of the ball.

    Orlando is one of the best defensive coordinators in all of college football, and Texas will be better in Year 2 of his system. Toss in all that secondary talent, and they should make some noise right away.

    Ehlinger's bowl performance is a bright spot considering the inconsistency they've had at the position. If he builds on that, Texas could be a sleeper in the conference and maybe push for even bigger things.

Texas A&M Aggies

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    2017 Highlights

    Like most of the years under former coach Kevin Sumlin, many of the highlights came in the first part of the season. But it was the season-opening 45-44 collapse against UCLA that ended any bit of support he had in College Station.

    A 24-17 win over South Carolina looked good on paper, and the Aggies were competitive in a 27-19 loss to eventual national champion Alabama. But they were blown out by Mississippi State, Auburn and LSU and allowed 55 points to Wake Forest in a postseason loss.

    Between the injuries and the defensive failures, '17 was forgettable.

            

    2018 Expectations

    Texas A&M paid big bucks to pluck Jimbo Fisher from Florida State, so expectations are going to be high from now on.

    Nick Starkel returned from an early-season injury to seize the job last year, and the rising sophomore looks like an ideal candidate to run Fisher's system. Kellen Mond will battle for the job this spring, and he's a super-talented player too. If Starkel is clearly the top guy, though, Mond may bolt.

    The Aggies have a star in the making at running back in Trayveon Williams, who battled injuries a season ago, and they've got a bunch of talent in the receiving corps, even with Christian Kirk gone to the NFL. If they can find some defensive pieces, they could challenge Alabama and Auburn in the SEC West.

            

    Why They're Dangerous

    They're underrated entering 2018 because they've underachieved so badly in recent years.

    But there is a ton of talent on that roster recruited by Sumlin, and it's up to Fisher to unlock it. Though the Aggies went after LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who ultimately stayed on the Bayou, they wound up with Notre Dame coordinator Mike Elko, who may be a better hire.

    Elko has led top-50 defenses at Notre Dame, Wake Forest and Bowling Green in each of the past six seasons. This will be the most talented roster he's ever had despite all the failures of the past couple of seasons under John Chavis. If he develops those guys, the Aggies will be the biggest surprise in the SEC.